English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen
Come like shadowsso depart.
LAMB1 it was, I think, who suggested this subject, as well as the defence of Guy Fawkes, which I urged him to execute. As, however, he would undertake neither, I suppose I must do both, a task for which he would have been much fitter, no less from the temerity than the felicity of his pen
Compared with him, I shall, I fear, make but a commonplace piece of business of it; but I should be loth the idea was entirely lost, and, besides, I may avail myself of some hints of his in the progress of it. I am sometimes, I suspect, a better reporter of the ideas of other people than expounder of my own. I pursue the one too far into paradox or mysticism; the others I am not bound to follow farther than I like, or than seems fair and reasonable.
On the question being started, Ayrton3 said, I suppose the two first persons you would choose to see would be the two greatest names in English literature, Sir Isaac Newton and Mr. Locke? In this Ayrton, as usual, reckoned without his host. Everyone burst out a-laughing at the expression on Lambs face, in which impatience was restrained by courtesy. Yes, the greatest names, he stammered out hastily; but they were not personsnot persons. Not persons, said Ayrton, looking wise and foolish at the same time, afraid his triumph might be premature. That is, rejoined Lamb, not characters, you know. By Mr. Locke and Sir Isaac Newton, you mean the Essay on the Human Understanding, and the Principia, which we have to this day. Beyond their contents there is nothing personally interesting in the men. But what we want to see anyone bodily for, is when there is something peculiar, striking in the individuals, more than we can learn from their writings, and yet are curious to know. I dare say Locke and Newton were very like Knellers portraits of them. But who could paint Shakespeare? Ay, retorted Ayrton, there it is,; then I suppose you would prefer seeing him and Milton instead? No, said Lamb, neither. I have seen so much of Shakespeare on the stage and on book-stalls, in frontispieces and on mantelpieces, that I am quite tired of the everlasting repetition: and as to Miltons face, the impressions that have come down to us of it I do not like; it is too starched and puritanical; and I should be afraid of losing some of the manna of his poetry in the leaven of his countenance and the precisians band and gown. I shall guess no more, said Ayrton. Who is it, then, you would like to see in his habit as he lived, if you had your choice of the whole range of English literature? Lamb then named Sir Thomas Browne and Fulke Greville, the friend of Sir Philip Sidney, as the two worthies whom he should feel the greatest pleasure to encounter on the floor of his apartment in their nightgowns and slippers and to exchange friendly greeting with them. At this Ayrton laughed outright, and conceived Lamb was jesting with him; but as no one followed his example, he thought there might be something in it, and waited for an explanation in a state of whimsical suspense. Lamb then (as well as I can remember a conversation that passed twenty years agohow time slips!) went on as follows: The reason why I pitch upon these two authors is, that their writings are riddles, and they themselves the most mysterious of personages. They resemble the soothsayers of old, who dealt in dark hints and doubtful oracles; and I should like to ask them the meaning of what no mortal but themselves, I should suppose, can fathom. There is Dr. Johnson: I have no curiosity, no strange uncertainty about him; he and Boswell together have pretty well let me into the secret of what passed through his mind. He and other writers like him are sufficiently explicit; my friends, whose repose I should be tempted to disturb (were it in my power), are implicit, inextricable, inscrutable.
When I look at that obscure but gorgeous prose composition, the Urn-burial, I seem to myself to look into a deep abyss, at the bottom of which are hid pearls and rich treasure; or it is like a stately labyrinth of doubt and withering speculation, and I would invoke the spirit of the author to lead me through it. Besides, who would not be curious to see the lineaments of a man who, having himself been twice married, wished that mankind were propagated like trees!5 As to Fulke Greville, he is like nothing but one of his own Prologues spoken by the ghost of an old king of Ormus, a truly formidable and inviting personage: his style is apocalyptical, cabalistical, a knot worthy of such an apparition to untie; and for the unravelling a passage or two, I would stand the brunt of an encounter with so portentous a commentator! I am afraid, in that case, said Ayrton, that if the mystery were once cleared up, the merit might be lost; and turning to me, whispered a friendly apprehension, that while Lamb continued to admire these old crabbed authors, he would never become a popular writer. Dr. Donne was mentioned as a writer of the same period, with a very interesting countenance, whose history was singular, and whose meaning was often quite as uncomeatable, without a personal citation from the dead, as that of any of his contemporaries. The volume was produced; and while someone was expatiating on the exquisite simplicity and beauty of the portrait prefixed to the old edition, Ayrton got hold of the poetry, and exclaiming What have we here? read the following:
There was no resisting this, till Lamb, seizing the volume, turned to the beautiful Lines to His Mistress, dissuading her from accompanying him abroad, and read them with suffused features and a faltering tongue:
By our first strange and fatal interview,
By all desires which thereof did ensue,
By our long starving hopes, by that remorse
Which my words masculine perswasive force
Begot in thee, and by the memory
Of hurts, which spies and rivals threatened me,
I calmely beg. But by thy fathers wrath,
By all paines which want and divorcement hath,
I conjure thee; and all the oathes which I
And thou have sworne to seale joynt constancy
Here I unsweare, and overswear them thus
Thou shalt not love by ways so dangerous.
Temper, O fair love! loves impetuous rage,
Be my true mistris still, not my faignd Page;
Ill goe, and, by thy kinde leave, leave behinde
Thee! onely worthy to nurse it in my minde.
Thirst to come backe; O, if thou die before,
My soule, from other lands to thee shall soare.
Thy (else almighty) beautie cannot move
Rage from the seas, nor thy love teach them love,
Nor tame wild Boreas harshnesse: thou hast reade
How roughly hee in peeces shivered
Fair Orithea, whom he swore he lovd.
Fair ill or good, tis madness to have provd
Dangers unurgd: Feed on this flattery,
That absent lovers one in th other be.
Dissemble nothing, not a boy; nor change
Thy bodies habite, not minde; be not strange
To thyeselfe onely. All will spie in thy face
A blushing, womanly, discovering grace.
Richly-cloathd apes are calld apes, and as soon
Eclipsd as bright, we call the moone the moon.
Men of France, changeable camelions,
Spittles of diseases, shops of fashions,
Loves fuellers, and the rightest company
Of players, which upon the worlds stage be,
Will quickly know thee O stay here! for thee
England is onely a worthy gallerie,
To walke in expectation; till from thence
Our greatest King call thee to his presence.
When I am gone, dreame me some happinesse,
Nor let thy lookes our long-hid love confesse,
Nor praise, nor dispraise me; nor blesse, nor curse
Openly loves force, nor in bed fright thy nurse
With midnights starting, crying out, Oh, oh,
Nurse, oh my love is slaine, I saw him goe
Oer the white Alpes alone! I saw him, I,
Assaild, fight, taken, stabbd, bleed, fall, and die.
Someone then inquired of Lamb if we could not see from the window the Temple-walk in which Chaucer used to take his exercise; and on his name being put to the vote, I was pleased to find that there was a general sensation in his favor in all but Ayrton, who said something about the ruggedness of the metre, and even objected to the quaintness of the orthography. I was vexed at this superficial gloss, pertinaciously reducing everything to its own trite level, and asked, If he did not think it would be worth while to scan the eye that had first greeted the Muse in that dim twilight and early dawn of English literature; to see the head round which the visions of fancy must have played like gleams of inspiration or a sudden glory; to watch those lips that lisped in numbers, for the numbers cameas by a miracle, or as if the dumb should speak? Nor was it alone that he had been the first to tune his native tongue (however imperfectly to modern ears); but he was himself a noble, manly character, standing before his age and striving to advance it; a pleasant humorist withal, who has not only handed down to us the living manners of his time, but had, no doubt, store of curious and quaint devices, and would make as hearty a companion as mine host of the Tabard. His interview with Petrarch is fraught with interest. Yet I would rather have seen Chaucer in company with the author of the Decameron, and have heard them exchange their best stories togetherthe Squires Tale against the story of the Falcon, the Wife of Baths Prologue against the Adventures of Friar Albert. How fine to see the high mysterious brow which learning then wore, relieved by the gay, familiar tone of men of the world, and by the courtesies of genius! Surely, the thoughts and feelings which passed through the minds of these great revivers of learning, these Cadmuses who sowed the teeth of letters, must have stamped an expression on their features as different from the moderns as their books, and well worth the perusal. Dante, I continued, is as interesting a person as his own Ugolino, one whose lineaments curiosity would as eagerly devour in order to penetrate his spirit, and the only one of the Italian poets I should care much to see. There is a fine portrait of Ariosto by no less a hand than Titians; light, Moorish, spirited, but not answering our idea. The same artists large colossal profile of Peter Aretine is the only likeness of the kind that has the effect of conversing with the mighty dead; and this is truly spectral, ghastly, necromantic. Lamb put it to me if I should like to see Spenser as well as Chaucer; and I answered, without hesitation, No; for that his beauties were ideal, visionary, not palpable or personal, and therefore connected with less curiosity about the man. His poetry was the essence of romance, a very halo round the bright orb of fancy; and the bringing in the individual might dissolve the charm. No tones of voice could come up to the mellifluous cadence of his verse; no form but of a winged angel could vie with the airy shapes he has described. He was (to our apprehensions) rather a creature of the element, that lived in the rainbow and played in the plighted clouds, than an ordinary mortal. Or if he appear, I should wish it to be as a mere vision, like one of his own pageants, and that he should pass by unquestioned like a dream or sound
I should like, said Mrs. Reynolds, to have seen Pope talk with Patty Blount; and I have seen Goldsmith. Everyone turned round to look at Mrs. Reynolds, as if by so doing they could get a sight at Goldsmith.
Where, asked a harsh, croaking voice, was Dr. Johnson in the years 174546? He did not write anything that we know of, nor is there any account of him in Boswell during those two years. Was he in Scotland with the Pretender? He seems to have passed through the scenes in the Highlands in company with Boswell, many years after, with lack-lustre eye, yet as if they were familiar to him, or associated in his mind with interests that he durst not explain. If so, it would be an additional reason for my liking him; and I would give something to have seen him seated in the tent with the youthful Majesty of Britain, and penning the Proclamation to all true subjects and adherents of the legitimate government.
I thought, said Ayrton, turning short round upon Lamb, that you of the Lake School did not like Pope? Not like Pope! My dear sir, you must be under a mistakeI can read him over and over forever! Why, certainly, the Essay on Man must be allowed to be a masterpiece. It may be so, but I seldom look into it. Oh! then its his satires you admire? No, not his satires, but his friendly epistles and his compliments. Compliments! I did not know he ever made any. The finest, said Lamb, that were ever paid by the wit of man. Each of them is worth an estate for lifenay, is an immortality. There is that superb one to Lord Cornbury:
What say you to Dryden? He rather made a show of himself, and courted popularity in that lowest temple of fame, a coffee-shop, so as in some measure to vulgarize ones idea of him. Pope, on the contrary, reached the very beau ideal of what a poets life should be; and his fame while living seemed to be an emanation from that which was to circle his name after death. He was so far enviable (and one would feel proud to have witnessed the rare spectacle in him) that he was almost the only poet and man of genius who met with his reward on this side of the tomb, who realized in friends, fortune, the esteem of the world, the most sanguine hopes of a youthful ambition, and who found that sort of patronage from the great during his lifetime which they would be thought anxious to bestow upon him after his death. Read Gays verses to him on his supposed return from Greece, after his translation of Homer was finished, and say if you would not gladly join the bright procession that welcomed him home, or see it once more land at Whitehall stairs. Still, said Mrs. Reynolds, I would rather have seen him talking with Patty Blount, or riding by in a coronet-coach with Lady Mary Wortley Montague!
Erasmus Phillips, who was deep in a game of piquet at the other end of the room, whispered to Martin Burney to ask if Junius would not be a fit person to invoke from the dead. Yes, said Lamb, provided he would agree to lay aside his mask.
We were now at a stand for a short time, when Fielding was mentioned as a candidate; only one, however, seconded the proposition. Richardson? By all means, but only to look at him through the glass door of his back shop, hard at work upon one of his novels (the most extraordinary contrast that ever was presented between an author and his works); not to let him come behind his counter, lest he should want you to turn customer, or to go upstairs with him, lest he should offer to read the first manuscript of Sir Charles Grandison, which was originally written in eight-and-twenty volumes octavo, or get out the letters of his female correspondents, to prove that Joseph Andrews was low.
There was but one statesman in the whole of English history that anyone expressed the least desire to seeOliver Cromwell, with his fine, frank, rough, pimply face and wily policy; and one enthusiast, John Bunyan, the immortal author of the Pilgrims Progress. It seemed that if he came into the room, dreams would follow him, and that each person would nod under his golden cloud, nigh-sphered in heaven, a canopy as strange and stately as any in Homer.
Of all persons near our own time, Garricks name was received with the greatest enthusiasm, who was proposed by Barron Field. He presently superseded both Hogarth and Handel, who had been talked of, but then it was on condition that he should act in tragedy and comedy, in the play and the farce, Lear and Wildair and Abel Drugger. What a sight for sore eyes that would be! Who would not part with a years income at least, almost with a year of his natural life, to be present at it? Besides, as he could not act alone, and recitations are unsatisfactory things, what a troop he must bring with himthe silver-tongued Barry, and Quin, and Shuter and Weston, and Mrs. Clive and Mrs. Pritchard, of whom I have heard my father speak as so great a favorite when he was young. This would indeed be a revival of the dead, the restoring of art; and so much the more desirable, as such is the lurking scepticism mingled with our overstrained admiration of past excellence, that though we have the speeches of Burke, the portraits of Reynolds, the writings of Goldsmith, and the conversation of Johnson, to show what people could do at that period, and to confirm the universal testimony to the merits of Garrick; yet, as it was before our time, we have our misgivings, as if he was probably, after all, little better than a Bartlemyfair actor, dressed out to play Macbeth in a scarlet coat and laced cocked-hat. For one, I should like to have seen and heard with my own eyes and ears. Certainly, by all accounts, if anyone was ever moved by the true histrionic æstus, it was Garrick. When he followed the Ghost in Hamlet, he did not drop the sword, as most actors do, behind the scenes, but kept the point raised the whole way round, so fully was he possessed with the idea, or so anxious not to lose sight of his part for a moment. Once at a splendid dinner-party at Lord s, they suddenly missed Garrick, and could not imagine what was become of him, till they were drawn to the window by the convulsive screams and peals of laughter of a young negro boy, who was rolling on the ground in an ecstasy of delight to see Garrick mimicking a turkey-cock in the courtyard, with his coat-tail stuck out behind, and in a seeming flutter of feathered rage and pride. Of our party only two persons present had seen the British Roscius; and they seemed as willing as the rest to renew their acquaintance with their old favorite.
We were interrupted in the hey-day and mid-career of this fanciful speculation, by a grumbler in a corner, who declared it was a shame to make all this rout about a mere player and farce-writer, to the neglect and exclusion of the fine old dramatists, the contemporaries and rivals of Shakespeare. Lamb said he had anticipated this objection when he had named the author of Mustapha and Alaham; and, out of caprice, insisted upon keeping him to represent the set, in preference to the wild, hare-brained enthusiast, Kit Marlowe; to the sexton of St. Anns, Webster, with his melancholy yew-trees and deaths-heads; to Decker, who was but a garrulous proser; to the voluminous Heywood; and even to Beaumont and Fletcher, whom we might offend by complimenting the wrong author on their joint productions. Lord Brooke, on the contrary, stood quite by himself, or, in Cowleys words, was a vast species alone. Someone hinted at the circumstance of his being a lord, which rather startled Lamb, but he said a ghost would perhaps dispense with strict etiquette, on being regularly addressed by his title. Ben Jonson divided our suffrages pretty equally. Some were afraid he would begin to traduce Shakespeare, who was not present to defend himself. If he grows disagreeable, it was whispered aloud, there is Godwin can match him. At length, his romantic visit to Drummond of Hawthornden was mentioned, and turned the scale in his favor.
Lamb inquired if there was anyone that was hanged that I would choose to mention? And I answered, Eugene Aram.12 The name of the Admirable Crichton was suddenly started as a splendid example of waste talents, so different from the generality of his countrymen. This choice was mightily approved by a North-Briton present, who declared himself descended from that prodigy of learning and accomplishment, and said he had family plate in his possession as vouchers for the fact, with the initials A. C.Admirable Crichton! Hunt laughed, or rather roared, as heartily at this as I should think he has done for many years.
The last-named Mitre-courtier13 then wished to know whether there were any metaphysicians to whom one might be tempted to apply the wizard spell? I replied, there were only six in modern times deserving the nameHobbes, Berkeley, Butler, Hartley, Hume, Leibnitz; and perhaps Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts man.14 As to the French, who talked fluently of having created this science, there was not a tittle in any of their writings that was not to be found literally in the authors I had mentioned. [Horne Tooke, who might have a claim to come in under the head of grammar, was still living.] None of these names seemed to excite much interest, and I did not plead for the reappearance of those who might be thought best fitted by the abstracted nature of their studies for the present spiritual and disembodied state, and who, even while on this living stage, were nearly divested of common flesh and blood. As Ayrton, with an uneasy, fidgety face, was about to put some question about Mr. Locke and Dugald Stewart, he was prevented by Martin Burney, who observed, If J was here, he would undoubtedly be for having up those profound and redoubted socialists, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. I said this might be fair enough in him who had read, or fancied he had read, the original works, but I did not see how we could have any right to call up these authors to give an account of themselves in person till we had looked into their writings.
By this time it should seem that some rumor of our whimsical deliberation had got wind, and had disturbed the irritable genus in their shadowy abodes, for we received messages from several candidates that we had just been thinking of. Gray declined our invitation, though he had not yet been asked; Gay offered to come, and bring in his hand the Duchess of Bolton, the original Polly; Steele and Addison left their cards as Captain Sentry and Sir Roger de Coverley; Swift came in and sat down without speaking a word, and quitted the room as abruptly; Otway and Chatterton were seen lingering on the opposite side of the Styx, but could not muster enough between them to pay Charon his fare; Thomson fell asleep in the boat, and was rowed back again; and Burns sent a low fellow, one John Barleycorn, an old companion of his, who had conducted him to the other world, to say that he had during his lifetime been drawn out of his retirement as a show, only to be made an exciseman of, and that he would rather remain where he was. He desired, however, to shake hands by his representativethe hand, thus held out, was in a burning fever, and shook prodigiously.
The room was hung round with several portraits of eminent painters. While we were debating whether we should demand speech with these masters of mute eloquence, whose features were so familiar to us, it seemed that all at once they glided from their frames, and seated themselves at some little distance from us. There was Leonardo, with his majestic beard and watchful eye, having a bust of Archimedes before him; next him was Raphaels graceful head turned round to the Fornarina; and on his other side was Lucretia Borgia, with calm, golden locks; Michael Angelo had placed the model of St. Peters on the table before him; Correggio had an angel at his side; Titian was seated with his mistress between himself and Giorgione; Guido was accompanied by his own Aurora, who took a dice-box from him; Claude held a mirror in his hand; Rubens patted a beautiful panther (led in by a satyr) on the head; Vandyke appeared as his own Paris, and Rembrandt was hid under furs, gold chains, and jewels, which Sir Joshua eyed closely, holding his hand so as to shade his forehead. Not a word was spoken; and as we rose to do them homage, they still presented the same surface to the view. Not being bona-fide representations of living people, we got rid of the splendid apparitions by signs and dumb show. As soon as they had melted into thin air, there was a loud noise at the outer door, and we found it was Giotto, Cimabue, and Ghirlandajo, who had been raised from the dead by their earnest desire to see their illustrious successors
Whose names on earth
In Fames eternal record live for aye!
Finding them gone, they had no ambition to be seen after them, and mournfully withdrew. Egad! said Lamb, these are the very fellows I should like to have had some talk with, to know how they could see to paint when all was dark around them.
But shall we have nothing to say, interrogated G. J, to the Legend of Good Women? Name, name, Mr. J, cried Hunt in a boisterous tone of friendly exultation, name as many as you please, without reserve or fear of molestation! J was perplexed between so many amiable recollections, that the name of the lady of his choice expired in a pensive whiff of his pipe; and Lamb impatiently declared for the Duchess of Newcastle. Mrs. Hutchinson was no sooner mentioned, than she carried the day from the Duchess. We were the less solicitous on this subject of filling up the posthumous lists of good women, as there was already one in the room as good, as sensible, and in all respects as exemplary, as the best of them could be for their lives! I should like vastly to have seen Ninon de lEnclos, said that incomparable person; and this immediately put us in mind that we had neglected to pay honor due to our friends on the other side of the Channel: Voltaire, the patriarch of levity, and Rousseau, the father of sentiment; Montaigne and Rabelais (great in wisdom and in wit); Molière and that illustrious group that are collected round him (in the print of that subject) to hear him read his comedy of the Tartuffe at the house of Ninon; Racine, La Fontaine, Rochefoucauld, St. Evremont, etc.
Come, come! said Hunt; I thought we should have no heroes, real or fabulous. What say you, Mr. Lamb? Are you for eking out your shadowy list with such names as Alexander, Julius Caesar, Tamerlane, or Genghis Khan? Excuse me, said Lamb; on the subject of characters in active life, plotters and disturbers of the world, I have a crotchet of my own, which I beg leave to reserve. No, no! come out with your worthies! What do you think of Guy Fawkes and Judas Iscariot? Hunt turned an eye upon him like a wild Indian, but cordial and full of smothered glee. Your most exquisite reason! was echoed on all sides; and Ayrton thought that Lamb had now fairly entangled himself. Why, I cannot but think, retorted he of the wistful countenance, that Guy Fawkes, that poor, fluttering, annual scarecrow of straw and rags, is an ill-used gentleman. I would give something to see him sitting pale and emaciated, surrounded by his matches and his barrels of gunpowder, and expecting the moment that was to transport him to Paradise for his heroic self-devotion; but if I say any more, there is that fellow Godwin will make something of it. And as to Judas Iscariot, my reason is different. I would fain see the face of him who, having dipped his hand in the same dish with the Son of Man, could afterwards betray him. I have no conception of such a thing; nor have I ever seen any picture (not even Leonardos very fine one) that gave me the least idea of it. You have said enough, Mr. Lamb, to justify your choice.
There is only one other person I can ever think of after this, continued Lamb;15 but without mentioning a name that once put on a semblance of mortality. If Shakespeare was to come into the room, we should all rise up to meet him; but if that person was to come into it, we should all fall down and try to kiss the hem of his garment!
As a lady present seemed now to get uneasy at the turn the conversation had taken, we rose up to go. The morning broke with that dim, dubious light by which Giotto, Cimabue, and Ghirlandajo must have seen to paint their earliest works; and we parted to meet again and renew similar topics at night, the next night, and the night after that, till that night overspread Europe which saw no dawn. The same event, in truth, broke up our little congress that broke up the great one. But that was to meet again: our deliberations have never been resumed.
Note 1. Originally published in the New Monthly Magazine, January, 1826. The conversation described is supposed to take place at one of Charles Lambs Wednesdays, at 16 Mitre Court Buildings, London. [back]
Note 13. Lamb at this time occupied chambers in Mitre Court, Fleet Street.H. [back]
Note 14. Bacon is not included in this list, nor do I know where he should come in. It is not easy to make room for him and his reputation together. This great and celebrated man in some of his works recommends it to pour a bottle of claret into the ground of a morning, and to stand over it, inhaling the perfumes. So he sometimes enriched the dry and barren soil of speculation with the fine aromatic spirit of his genius. His essays and his Advancement of Learning are works of vast depth and scope of observation. The last, though it contains no positive discoveries, is a noble chart of the human intellect, and a guide to all future inquirers.H. [back]
Note 15. In the original form of the essay, this speech is given to Hunt. [back]